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75. Thought Experiments

JAMES ROBERT BROWN


Subject Philosophy

Key-Topics science

DOI: 10.1111/b.9780631230205.2001.00078.x


Extract

We need only list a few of the well-known thought experiments to be reminded of their enormous influence and importance in the sciences: Newton's bucket, Maxwell's demon, Einstein's elevator, Heisenberg's gamma-ray microscope, Schrödinger's cat. The seventeenth century saw some of its most brilliant practitioners in Galileo, Descartes, Newton, and Leibniz. And in our own time, the creation of quantum mechanics and relativity are almost unthinkable without the crucial role played by thought experiments. Galileo and Einstein were, arguably, the most impressive thought experimenters, but they were by no means the first. Thought experiments existed throughout the Middle Ages and can be found in antiquity too. One of the most beautiful early examples (from Lucretius, The Nature of Things ) attempts to show that space is infinite: If there is a boundary to the universe, we can toss a spear at it. If the spear flies through, it isn't a boundary after all; if the spear bounces back, then there must be something beyond the supposed edge of space - a cosmic wall which is itself in space - that stopped the spear. Either way, there is no edge of the universe; space is infinite. This example nicely illustrates many of the common features of thought experiments: We visualize some situation; we carry out an operation; we see what happens. It also illustrates their fallibility: in this case we've ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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